Pursuing Ministry – but Not as a Career

Sometimes, depending on your career choice, pursuing your dream job can be a complicated journey,  but most of the time it’s a pretty clear cut process, and it generally mirrors the process listed below.

Whether pursuing a vocation inside or outside of the church, it usually goes something like this.

  1. Determine the training/education needed for that field.
  2. Pursue that education and (if possible) internships/apprenticeships in the field during your education.
  3. After graduating or completing training, start searching job boards and applying for desired openings.
  4. Land a lower level job in the field, and spend the next several years “working your way up” to your desired position.

Obviously there are exceptions to this process, but in general I think this is a pretty accurate description of a large majority of career paths.

I would also say that for the most part, in recent history, this has been the path for many people pursuing pastoral ministry.

And while this process makes sense for pursuing most “secular” careers out there, I have become convinced that this path is not always the best path to take for those pursuing pastoral ministry. In fact, the longer I’m in ministry, the more I believe that landing your “dream job” in ministry should be more like finding a family and less like pursuing a career.

My personal journey has looked more like the former than the latter. This has not necessarily happened intentionally, but as I’ve traversed this path, there have been a few insights I’ve gathered that are worth considering for anyone thinking about pursuing ministry not as a job, but as a calling.

Pursuing ministry opportunities should be based on our convictions, and not our desire for paid positions.

Early on in ministry I was faced with a difficult decision. I was doing student ministry at a growing church in my home community, with a paid, part-time salary. I knew there were likely going to be plenty of opportunities for advancement into full-time paid positions in the future. I was grateful for my church, but as I formed my own theological views and ministry philosophy, I knew eventually I’d have to find a church more closely aligned with my growing convictions.

When that new church presented itself, I found that there was room to serve and much to learn, but not as a “paid pastor.” The question became do I stay in the place where I can collect a pay check and maybe “move up,” or do I go to the church that I align with theologically and philosophically, even if that means I have to pick up an outside job to pay the bills?

I chose the second option, and if I had to do it all again, I would make the same decision every time.

As grateful as I am for the church I was at, transitioning to a church that I could go “all in” with has been an invaluable experience and has contributed to my formation as a pastor in ways I never could have imagined. This is counter-intuitive to how we might “pursue a career” in the corporate world, but it’s a key consideration when pursuing a calling to ministry.

Pursuing a calling toward ministry is not a call to climb a corporate ladder.

If we were to make a Venn diagram illustrating all the differences and similarities between church leadership and business leadership, there would certainly be a great deal of overlap between these two fields. And while those similarities are good to learn from, some of the most important elements of leadership within the church are the ones that fall outside of that area of overlap.

CEOs aren’t called to be known for their love, or for their hospitality, or their gentleness.

Pastors are.

If this is true, then our pursuit and preparation for these two vocations should look differently from each other. The church is not a business. Therefore, our pursuit of service in ministry should have distinguishing marks that remind us of this truth.

Pursuing ministry can often test our motives for serving in a particular role.

Many of us are familiar with the idea of “paying your dues” in a lower level position in order to earn your place at the table with the big dogs. And while that language makes sense in the corporate world, it should have little to do with serving in Jesus’ church.

When we view ministry positions as stepping stones to the next, more highly desired position, our motives for taking so-called “lower level” roles can often be less than sincere.

But if ministry is less like climbing a ladder and more like serving with a family, we’re more likely to serve in any given position (paid or unpaid) where our gifts can be utilized for the good of the church. This is a win for our personal growth and it is a win for our churches.

Pursuing ministry is not about what we do for Jesus, but what he’s done for us.

Pastoral ministry can be a tricky calling to navigate for our sinful hearts. Scripture reminds us that anyone who seeks this office, desires a noble task. But as a young man in pursuit of pastoral ministry it has often been difficult to untangle the parts of me that are pursuing a noble task, and the parts of me that are being enticed toward what some would call “ministry idolatry,” especially during times when I didn’t hold an official “pastor job.”

Being forced to go through seasons of not being “Pastor Ricardo,” but just “Ricardo,” has been a humbling and sometimes painful experience. Humbling because it’s reminded me that Jesus doesn’t need me to build his church. Painful, because it’s required me to deal with the sinful parts of my heart that seek to build my identity on what I accomplish for Jesus, instead of what he’s accomplished for me.

And yet, confronting some of these issues has put me in a position that I can now minister from a healthier posture; not seeking to accomplish much for Jesus, but seeking to follow Jesus more faithfully.

While the Lord certainly could have taught this lesson another way, I think he used this path toward ministry to help refine me in some important ways.

Pursue Jesus. He’ll provide the ministry.

The journey toward ministry can be a daunting pursuit, and job boards and church staffing websites will probably be around forever. But for the good of the church and our own hearts, I think all young pastors could benefit from thinking about our journey less as a career path, and more like a calling to follow Jesus more closely.

This may not always lead to paid ministry positions, but it will likely lead us to serving the church family God has for us that we never would have found otherwise.

 

 

Church Planting in Nazareth

Can anything good come from…

Commerce City, Colorado?

If you’re from the Denver area you know about Commerce City. This city has a well-known reputation that has existed for many years now, and that reputation is not exactly a favorable one.

For many, the first ideas that come to mind when thinking about Commerce City are not pleasant. There’s the giant oil refinery which tends to impede upon any nice views west toward the mountains or downtown. There is the failing school district that has frequently made headlines recently. There are the jokes about poisonous water, contaminated by the nuclear weapons developed nearby during WWII. Lastly, there are the perceptions of the people who live here; many of whom are blue collar, low income, and a large percentage of whom (at least here in south Commerce City) are of Latino descent with questionable immigration status. That’s not to mention rising homelessness, drug use, crime, etc.

Of course Commerce City is much more than this seedy reputation, but for many, even for those who live here, the common assumptions of this place run strong, which is why, several years ago as the northern, “nicer” part of Commerce City developed, it wasn’t uncommon for people who lived “up there” to distinguish themselves from those who live “down here” in real Commerce City (as some might call it). There was even a time where many moving into the nice, new neighborhoods “up north” tried to change the name of their communities in order to distinguish themselves from… Commerce City.

And yet, while there are many who would look at the list of items mentioned above and see it as good reason for avoiding this place, I look at that list as a large portion of why I love this place.

Church Planting in Nazareth

It’s been a little over a year since my wife and I moved from a more newly developed neighborhood in north Commerce City, into “old Commerce City” with dreams of starting a new church.

And when considering our move down here, there were some who seemed concerned about our decision to do so. After all, many people seek to move out of core Commerce City, not into it. “Are you sure you want to live down there?” some might ask.

After all, the prevailing sentiment among many was not all that different from that of Nathaniel in John 1:43-46 who, when told about the arrival of the long anticipated Messiah and his hometown, asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

The shared attitude of Nathaniel in the gospel of John, and many today regarding Commerce City, is not necessarily one of disdain, but more like common lore that makes this city the punchline of a joke that everyone should get (like the smell in Greeley, or the “hippies” in Boulder).

As one author recently wrote in the LA Times, Nazareth would have been known as “a backwater of backwater,” filled with “throwaway people.” Nazareth was filled with working class peasants who fell at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder and had a life expectancy that extended not much beyond their 30s.

And yet, the irony behind that statement and attitude from Nathaniel is the best part of the story. Because even though Nazareth was the ancient version of today’s Commerce City (or east Colfax, etc.), the hidden truth was that yes, something really good actually could come out of Nazareth. Or, as the hip hop artist Sho Baraka raps:

“‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’

Ha. The only thing good came out of Nazareth.”

Not only did a good thing come out of Nazareth, but the best person came out of Nazareth.

Jesus the Christ.

One of the most peculiarly beautiful nuances of the story of Jesus is the fact that the infinitely majestic God of the universe chose to reveal himself not as powerful ruler of nations, but as a lowly tradesman from a town nobody thought or cared much about.

A town to crack jokes about.

And yet from this humble hometown, Jesus of Nazareth – God in human flesh – embarked on his mission to heal all that is broken, unjust, and sinful in this world, and bring about the redemption of sinners like me.

It’s an unlikely story that rubs against our common understanding what a king ought to be. And yet, on another level, it’s a story that we know just might be true. After all, who in their right mind would ever think to make up a story about a God who grew up in a place like Nazareth?

As Molly and I have begun our journey toward starting a new church in Commerce City, a question has been rolling over in my head for months.

Can anything good come out of Commerce City?

Many might laugh and not even think to answer, because after all, that’s the joke right?

Internet memes.

Sarcastic comments.

Low expectations.

Can anything good come out of Commerce City?

I can’t wait to see.

Reflecting on The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby

This week I finished reading a book that I think all Christians should read. But beyond that, I would urge Christian leaders in particular to read and reflect upon this book.

That book was The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity with Racism by Jemar Tisby. The primary purpose of this book is to give a broad overview of the history of racial injustice in the United States, and how, sadly, at many times, the church has had a large role to play in that injustice – sometimes explicitly and actively, and sometimes through passive inaction.

Due to the weighty subject matter, this wasn’t an easy book to read but it was an important read. Here are a few reasons why I appreciated this book and why I think it’s worthy of your attention if you are a Christian or Christian leader.

1.The Purpose is Redemptive in Nature

One of the things I appreciate most about Jemar Tisby and his aim with this book is that his goal is not to tear down but to help bring healing to the American church. One of the things that shines through about Tisby is his humble, yet resolved, posture towards issues of racial reconciliation and justice. That posture shines through this book, but also in Tisby’s other projects which include his Pass the Mic podcast.

Tisby is not an angry critic trying to blast and denounce evangelical Christians, but he is an informed witness who is speaking hard truths both about the history of our nation and about the church’s place in that history. These truths about the racially divisive history of our nation are not easy to look at, but the reality is that without a proper diagnosis of where we’ve come from, we cannot move forward in healing properly. This book is a good first step in that direction, and Tisby’s voice is helpful in guiding us along that path.

2.It Provides Valuable “Cultural Exegesis”

One thing church leaders are often talking about is the value and necessity of doing good “cultural exegesis” – that is, being able to read and understand the culture one is trying to minister to. With that in mind, this book is a helpful tool in exegeting our culture.

I think it is safe to say at this point that if our cultural exegesis in America does not include some attempt to understand the experience of racism among many minorities in our country, our attempts to minister in our communities may be severely frustrated, and in some cases – depending on your context – misplaced or even detrimental.

Every community in our nation, even the most monolithic ones, have some sort of racial history to them. Whether you are planting a church in a gentrifying part of Denver, or somewhere on the eastern plains of Colorado, there is racial history there and as church leaders seeking to enter into and minister in these places, it would be unwise not to give the same level of attention to that history as we would give to all our demographic analysis and network building. And while this history may play a big or small role in the story of your community, depending on your context, it is a piece nonetheless and it would be a mistake to overlook this reality.

3. It Helps Us to See the Big Picture

Depending on what generation or background you come from, it is common for many to assume that racism is a thing of the past in our nation. For many today, racism is something we read about in history books or watch documentaries about, but it certainly doesn’t exist in our country like it used to, except among a few rogue individuals here and there. Tisby’s historical overview of racism in America helps to show that this would be an incorrect assessment. From slavery at our colonial foundations, through the Civil War, Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights movement, and up til today, Tisby shows racism has been deeply embedded within the fabric of our nation, and that over time “racism doesn’t disappear, it just adapts.”

And while systemic racism isn’t as openly visible as it used to be in our country (i.e. slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc.) it still exists just under the surface in many parts of our society. For some this may be difficult to believe, but that’s where gaining a broader perspective is helpful. Seeing the big picture that Tisby walks us through in this book helps us to make sense of the fact that even if things have improved a great deal in the last several decades, centuries worth of racial injustice cannot be healed in such a short period of time.

There is still plenty of healing work to do as a nation, and within the church of Jesus Christ, and in order to do that work well, we have to start with acknowledging the truth of where we’ve gone wrong. Before we can “do justice… and walk humbly” as God’s people (Micah 6:8), we have to see and own where we’ve failed, so we can resolve to do better.

Conclusion 

As mentioned above, this book is a challenge to read, but as the God’s people there are information and ideas present within it that can help us to be agents of healing in our nation. The implications and effects of racism in your community or network of friends may be closer than you realize, even within the church you belong to. Recognizing where we have fallen short as God’s people is the first step in living out our calling to be salt and light in the world. I think this book can help us accomplish that mission.

 

Reflections on Martin Luther King Jr.

Several weeks ago, while following a threaded conversation on Twitter, I came to realization that I had never read anything very substantial written my Martin Luther King Jr. Sure, I remember reading a short biography about him when I was in fourth grade, and I’ve listened to his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but other than these brief points of contact, I realized I’ve had very little exposure to the man’s thoughts and writings.

I think this was particularly convicting for a few reasons. First, given much of the frustration at the current level of racial tension in our nation, I felt that Martin Luther King’s voice is one I should have thought to listen to along time ago. Along with this, I’ve recently set the goal to begin reading books, and specifically theology, written from more ethnically diverse backgrounds. This isn’t necessarily because I am unappreciative for the many Anglo voices that have come to fill my bookshelves and influence my theology, but more so it is because as a Mexican-American Christian, I have felt a pull to become better acquainted with many of the non-white voices that aren’t often quoted on Facebook, or assigned as texts in seminary. Martin Luther King Jr. clearly falls into this category. Lastly, I was convicted that I’d never read anything from the man because he was not only a great American historical figure, but also a great preacher and faithful Christian, whose writing and thinking ought not be forgotten or ignored.

Therefore, I felt it was time to read something written by Dr. King. So for the last several weeks I’ve been reading through Strength to Love, which is a collection of many of King’s sermons that was a originally published in 1963. The following points are just a few of the observations I’ve had while reading this small book.

He was an incredibly gifted thinker and speaker.

I never knew that Martin Luther King was only 15 years old when he graduated high school, 19 years old when he graduated from college and was ordained for ministry, and 26 years old when he graduated with his PhD in Systematic Theology from Boston University (this was also the same year he became a key leader in the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama). I am 26 years old right now and it is astounding to consider the level of education and leadership that this man achieved at such a young age. His sharp thinking is evident throughout his writing. He never spoke down to his congregants, but he often challenged his listeners to reject “soft-mindedness” and he reminded them that part of faithfully following Jesus means thinking rightly. This is a healthy word for the church today.

His writing is deeply relevant still today.

This probably isn’t much of a surprise to many, but I have been amazed at how many sentences or whole paragraphs I have highlighted because they are so applicable to America in 2018. Whether he was discussing justice and oppression, or war, or the pitfalls of evolutionary theory, or the prophetic role of the church, he made many observations that almost seemed to be speaking directly to where we find ourselves as a nation – and as a church – today.

His faith profoundly shaped all of his writing, speaking, and social action.

There are many today who might criticize Martin Luther King on certain aspects of his theology. Even as I have read some of his sermons, I have had to think twice about how certain key theological points are phrased. And while there is much to be debated about where King fell on the theological spectrum, what cannot be debated is the fact that it was precisely his theology which permeated and fueled all of his writing, preaching, and social action.

His view of God’s justice and sovereignty is what allowed him to endure suffering and oppression patiently. His view of Jesus’ love on the cross, is what compelled King to love those who brought about his suffering and oppression. His understanding of God’s forgiveness is what led him to extend forgiveness toward his racist neighbors. His understanding of all humans being made in the image of God is what grounded his belief that all men are created equal, and therefore deserved equal opportunity and protection under the law. The list could go on, but the point is that you cannot separate the actions of Martin Luther King Jr. from the biblical beliefs upon which they were founded, which leads to my final point.

He doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes which many would like to put him.

It is fascinating to observe social media on MLK Day. People from all over the the political and ideological spectrum post inspirational quotes from Dr. King, and many of these people would (rightly) view him as an admirable historical figure. But I think if Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, many of his ideas would likely be offensive to people on both the secular left and the religious right.

Many who adore him for his social justice work often fail to recognize that his views on social justice were strongly tied to his deep religious convictions. At the same time, many who are quick to laud King’s deep religious faith, are often the same people who fail to see how his faith drove him in his fight against oppression and injustice, and how Christians today ought to be driven to toward the same fight today. Martin Luther King Jr. ought to be applauded and remembered for many things, but as we commemorate him we ought to celebrate him for who he truly was and not some domesticated version of him that fits our ideological agenda. This applies to people on all sides of the political, social, and religious spectrums.

Grateful

I am grateful for Martin Luther King Jr. I’m bummed that it has taken me so long to recognize his voice for the important role that it has played in our nation, but my hope is that whether you are a Christian or not, you might consider picking up one of his works and reading it for yourself (Strength to Love would be a great place to start).

It has only been 50 years since he was shot and killed outside of his hotel room in Tennessee, and we would be fooling ourselves to believe that the racial divides and wounds in our nation have healed in such a short time. That should be more obvious now than ever. But perhaps by listening to his voice once again – and not just once a year on MLK Day – we can continue to strive toward unity in the midst of all that divides our society.

What I Learned from Reading John Piper Books for a Year

Over the course of the last year, I spent a great deal of time reading several books from someone who has, over the years, become one of my favorite authors. I’ve had a great deal of respect for John Piper for many years, even before this last year. I actually went to college right down the street from Bethlehem Baptist Church, where he pastored for over 30 years. Unfortunately, though I was right down the street, other than his name, I didn’t have much of an idea of who he was during my college years.

In my last semester of college, however, I came across Piper’s book Brother’s We Are Not Professionals which is, as Piper calls it, “A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry.” This book was a game-changer in how I viewed Christian ministry because its central thesis hinges on the idea that Christian ministry is not primarily about being a skilled executive, savvy entrepreneur, or entertaining preacher. Rather, the call to be a pastor is primarily a spiritual endeavor in which a deep, abiding love for Jesus and his word is the sole basis of our calling and success in ministry.

This truth completely altered my trajectory in ministry from that time forward.

Since that time, I’ve read and listened to Piper off and on. But last summer, on a whim, I decided to order his (at that time) newest book A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal their Complete Truthfulness. One of my professors from seminary, Craig Blomberg, endorsed it, which stood out to me, so I decided to give it a shot.

That book changed the way I viewed the reading the Bible, and from that point on I’ve just kept ordering more Piper books every time I have finished one. Almost a year has passed since then and in that time I have read ten different books written by John Piper.

Listed below is a brief, non-exhaustive list of six themes I’ve encountered in his works which, in my opinion, make his writing invaluable for the Church and for Christians today.

Note: I know that among many Christians, Piper is a polarizing figure for a variety of reasons, but I hope you’ll consider some of these as reason enough to be a charitable toward him in the future, and maybe even consider reading one of his books.

1. He has a Big View of God and an Accurate View of Humanity

The central thesis of all of Piper’s writing is that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” The primary reason that God exists is for his own glory, and this is good news for you and me. It is good news because every single human being was created for and is driven by our need to be satisfied by something outside of ourselves, and God is the only true, life-giving, non-wavering source of that satisfaction.

We may try to find that satisfaction in other places but it will always end in disappointment, apart from Jesus. But when our eyes are opened and we come to God, through Jesus for new life, two things happen. (1) Our deepest needs, longings, and cravings as human beings are met, and (2) God gets the his glory since he is the source of that fulfillment. This message is profoundly biblical, it is good for you and me, and it is good for the church.

2. He Longs to See People Saved from Among All Tribes and Nations

One of the biggest knocks against Piper from people outside of his stream is his insistence on God’s sovereignty over all things, including salvation of sinners like you and me (i.e. “Calvinism”).

But in spite of this (I would actually argue that it is because of this view of how God saves people), Piper has got to be one of the most passionate voices I’ve read in calling Christians to go and tell people across all nations and tribes about Jesus. His heart burns for world missions and he encourages my heart to burn for world missions as well. This is good for the church.

3. He Calls Christians to Risk Much for Jesus

One of Piper’s more popular books is called Don’t Waste Your Life, in which he calls Christians not to waste their lives living comfortably in this world, but rather living a life that boldly and radically shows love and grace to others, no matter what the cost may be on our own lives. This is the kind of Christian life that gives us lasting joy and brings glory to God, and it is the message that many American Christians (including myself) need to hear.

4. He Encourages Christians to Think!

“Raking is easy, but you only get leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.” This is how Piper speaks about the importance of using our minds when it comes to knowing and understanding God. It is never simply about knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but rather, it is because God has made it so that knowing him rightly, leads to loving him truly and passionately, which leads to loving others boldly.

5. He Calls Pastors to Make Much of Jesus, and Not Much of Themselves

Pastoral ministry, church-planting, worship leading. All of these are good and necessary in the church. The danger for those of us pursuing these vocations, is that in our sin we can easily over time make the platforms we have about us and not about Jesus, even while we are trying to tell people about Jesus.

Piper calls pastors to make God supreme in all of our preaching, worship leading, church planting. This is good for us and it is good for the church.

6. All of His Writing is Bible-Saturated

Last, but certainly not least, all of Piper’s writing drips with the Bible. Passages of scripture are not just sprinkled in for the sake of supporting his own opinions. All of his arguments are made by expositing passages from the Bible. This should be true of every pastor and preacher because, at the end of the day, our job is to lead people to love Jesus more than they currently do and this can only happen when we encounter him truly through his word.

And this is why I appreciate John Piper most. Because even though I have added many Piper books to my shelf over the last year, each one of those books has driven me to love another book more deeply, and that book is the Bible.

I pray that the same would be true of my own ministry someday.